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Op-Ed: NYCLU raises concerns about planned protests at the Republican National Convention in NYC in August (New York Newsday)

by Christopher Dunn and Donna Lieberman — Two days ago marked the one-year anniversary of the huge anti-war demonstration in New York City that was marred first by the City’s refusal to allow a march to take place and then by the Police Department’s unprecedented crackdown on those seeking to attend the rally near the United Nations. On February 15, 2003, over one hundred thousand people were herded into metal “pens” on First Avenue, tens of thousands of people were prevented from getting to the rally by police barricades blocking streets and sidewalks leading to the rally, and hundreds of people were terrified by police horses charging into crowds without warning or any opportunity for people to get out of the way.

Six weeks later the New York Civil Liberties Union learned that the NYPD had initiated a secret political-interrogation program. Under that program, which Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly ordered halted only after it became public, the Police Department’s Intelligence Division was interrogating people arrested at demonstrations about their political affiliations and their prior protest activities, filling out “Demonstrator Debriefing Forms,” and entering the information into a database.

These events loom large as we approach what will be the single most important test of the Bloomberg Administration’s commitment to civil liberties and the First Amendment: the Republican National Convention. Just over six months from now, people from all walks of life and from all parts of the country will converge on Madison Square Garden to express their views about President Bush and the Republican Party.

Will they be met with respect and cooperation? Or, as happened last February in New York City and as happened four years ago in Philadelphia at the 2000 Republican National Convention, will they be met with aggressive police tactics that thwart lawful and peaceful protest activity?

At this point, there are many reasons for concern. Many groups have applied for permits for marches and demonstrations, but the City has yet to act on any of the applications. While the NYPD has been planning for months, protest groups will be hamstrung until they get their permits.

Equally important, the NYPD has refused to disclose whether it will try to create “protest-free” zones in the vicinity of Madison Square Garden that would push demonstrators far from the Convention site. If the Bloomberg Administration bars rallies from taking place near the Garden or bars marches from going past the Garden, that would seriously undermine the ability of law-abiding protesters to have their message be heard.

Also unresolved is the issue of police crowd-control tactics. Blocking streets and sidewalks to restrict access to demonstrations, charging horses into peaceful crowds, and confining demonstrators to “pens” created a disastrous situation last February and cannot be repeated. And even more troubling is the prospect of even more extreme tactics — such as the armored vehicles and rubber bullets used in November by police in Miami at free-trade demonstrations there. We cannot have a City in which attending a demonstration puts law-abiding protesters and their children in danger from the police.

Finally, the City must openly address the issue of political surveillance by the police. As revealed by last spring’s covert political-interrogation program, the NYPD has been working hard to expand its political surveillance. Indeed, as the political-interrogation scandal surfaced, the City was demanding that a federal court remove restrictions on its political spying that were put in place in 1985 to address earlier police spying abuses. Given this and given the intense political activity likely to take place in New York City between now and the beginning of the Convention on August 30, there is every reason to be concerned about NYPD political surveillance.

But the news is not all bad. Mayor Bloomberg and Commissioner Kelly recently have professed a commitment to respecting the rights of protesters at the Convention. Senior-level NYPD officials recently started meeting with protest groups about permit applications and during those meetings expressed a desire to facilitate protest activity. No permits applications have been denied, and no protest-free zones have been declared. And after last February’s debacle, the City did turn around and one month later allowed a huge anti-war march through midtown.

Now is the time for Mayor Bloomberg to involve himself personally in the City’s handling of protest activity at the Republican National Convention. The event will draw national and international attention and for years will define New York City’s reputation for respecting the First Amendment. The Mayor needs to assure that protesters outside the Garden will be accorded the same respect as the Republicans on the inside.

Dunn is the associate legal director of the New York Civil Liberties Union and Lieberman is the executive director.

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